Sunday, April 5, 2009

Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29

My only reason for mentioning the film of this name, which I saw this afternoon at the Avalon Theatre, D.C., is that I happened to be present in Harvard Stadium on November 23, 1968, when this famous game took place. As my friend Albert, present both at the game with me (and his father, and Noah Griffin, who got the tickets for all of us) and at the movie today, observed, "This picture has a somewhat limited audience."

Summarized, this was the year (my 2nd year of law school) when Harvard and Yale came into The Game undefeated for the first time in their histories, which go back to the beginning of football. Yale was heavily favored, its team featuring Brian Dowling, a quarterback who hadn't lost a game since the 7th grade and was the inspiration for the character B.D. in Garry Trudeau's strip, Doonesbury, which began in the Yale Daily News -- some of his drawings appear in the movie and you can see how less sophisticated their lines were in contrast to his always-superb ear. The Elis also boasted of Calvin Hill, later a star for the Dallas Cowboys (when Ivy Leaguers still made it to the NFL), and one of the few players on either team absent from being interviewed in the movie, presumably by choice.

Harvard, as one of its players from '68 noted, was expected to have a rebuilding year, i.e., not a championship contender. Somehow the Crimson won all its games that year and thus faced the Yale team that had not only beaten all its opponents but did so mightily. The movie was apparently made by a Harvard man, and I can't say I found its sympathies unpleasant, although as a law student who had gone to Cornell, this was probably the only game of the year when I was likely to cheer for the 10,000 men of Harvard (as the song starts).

One might think from the interviews that Harvard did not recruit nation-wide as Yale clearly did. The principal Harvard players all had Massachusetts accents and ones that reflected origins in Everett and Quincy as well as fancier locales. The Yalies came from all over--one noted that many in his family had attended the college--and still seemed to feel they had been deprived of a victory they clearly deserved.

Harvard Stadium, also known as Soldiers Field, was familiar to me as the first place I covered an away football game when a sophomore sportswriter on The Cornell Daily Sun. Although no one would claim that Ithaca has less precipitation than Cambridge, the Crimson eleven was clearly superior as a rain-oriented squad in that game. The echoes of the public-address announcer in the movie using the unusual and typically Cantabridgian locution, "the pass failed" instead of calling it incomplete brought back those early press-box memories. It's also fun to recall that Harvard Stadium's tight sidelines--where the seats are almost on the field--are responsible for the width of the football field. In 1904 when the foundation for the stadium was being installed, the football field was widened but the reason it isn't wider today is because Harvard had already started building its stadium and there were about a half dozen major college teams back then, of which the Crimson and of course the Bulldogs were two of the foremost.

The movie shifts back and forth between good game sequences (from a televised record) and the interviews. Especially memorable were a sardonic and likeable defender J.P. Goldsmith and Harvard's second-string quarterback hero Frank Champi. There was one Yale defensive star who kept referring now to his clear intent then to take various Harvard players out of the game by actively striving to injure them, as "it was too dangerous to let him play any more." This guy was an exact double of the bad guy in the W.A.S.P.-y house in Animal House who terrorizes freshmen while riding a horse.

The heart of the story is that after trailing the whole game, Harvard, down 29-13, late into the 4th quarter, pulls off a series of amazing plays of all kinds, receives a few favorable calls by the officials, and recovers an onside kick to score 16 points in less than two minutes and tie the game. I've never seen it happen in real life before or since. Oh sure, come-from-behind finishes, yes, there were three of them at Cornell when I was a freshman, but not the whole panoply of circumstances that prevailed at this game.

As it happened, I saw the crucial last two or three minutes of the game from the sidelines--since the action was at the other end of the field, I saw little. We had been happy to get our lousy seats--in the first row of temporary stands in the end zone at the open end of the stadium. I figured Harvard was going to go down, so I set out to catch up with my cousin Eric Hertz in the Yale Band and figured I better start practicing eating crow.

It did make me realize that the big difference is that today, Ivy League football really is a joke. Back then, it had more of an amateur flavor but yet produced a few NFL prospects every year. The other joke of course is that Harvard and Yale, along with the other Ivies, recruit like crazy for players they think they can get--as for academic qualifications, some of the players in the movie conceded that getting through either school was not easy for them. Yale had a coach the players revered; Harvard's coach was seen as irrelevant by the players.

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